Imagine that you want to prepare a delectable brunch. You’re planning on homemade quiche, bacon, pancakes, parfaits, and mimosas. The works!
It’s quite the feast and a major undertaking, but you’re going to wing it. That’s what creativity is all about, right?
You’ve barely tied your apron strings when you realize things aren’t going well. You’re frantically digging through cupboards to find all of the ingredients you need. You forgot to preheat the oven while you made your quiche crust. You started the bacon way too early and now it’s going to be done an hour ahead of the rest of your dishes.
Sound stressful? You bet it is. And it’s also evidence of why effective project management is so important.
What Is Project Management?
Project management is the process of planning, executing, and monitoring a project so that it’s completed successfully.
Basically, instead of flying by the seat of your pants, you’re taking an organized approach to ensure your project meets its goals and requirements, and is delivered on time and under budget.
Project management is generally overseen by a dedicated project manager who has the skills, experience, and know-how to keep things on track.
However, that’s not always an option—especially for smaller teams or smaller projects. In that case, a different project team member needs to step up to become the point person.
It’s helpful to have a single person responsible for moving the project forward and keeping tabs on progress, as that avoids crossed wires and confusion.
Project Management Matters—Here’s Why
Our opening anecdote about a disastrous brunch was probably enough to illustrate the importance of project management (along with making your palms sweaty). But, let’s drive this point home by covering a few of the main benefits of project management.
1. Project Management Boosts Alignment
You might think the goals of your project or even your entire organization are crystal clear, but you’d likely be surprised by how murky things actually are. Research from MIT Sloan School of Management found that one-third of leaders tasked with carrying out their company’s strategy could not list even one of their company’s strategic priorities.
Yikes. There’s no quick fix, but project management is a step in the right direction. At the start of the project, the entire project team should discuss and understand not only the objective of the specific project, but how that supports broader business goals.
2. Project Management Improves Collaboration
Projects grind to a halt when people don’t know what they’re responsible for or when they need to have their individual tasks completed. Project management involves hashing out a detailed project plan—which includes clarifying the project scope, roles, action items, and timeline.
This enables a project team to collaborate far more efficiently and effectively than if they just rolled up their sleeves and dove right in without that much-needed clarity.
3. Project Management Helps You Avoid Risks And Pitfalls
You’ve heard the saying about best laid plans, right? They tend to run off the rails. Even if your team has a thoughtful and detailed project plan, the occasional wrench still gets tossed in. Maybe you can’t get your hands on the resource you need or you run into a delay getting a necessary approval.
The project planning and management process involves anticipating those types of risks and identifying a backup plan. This helps you steer around those roadblocks when they crop up, without popping the tires on your entire project.
4. Project Management Reduces Overwhelm
In one survey of more than 2,000 U.S. employees, over 60% of respondents admitted they feel stressed three or more work days per week. One of the causes of those frazzled feelings? Too much work on their to-do lists.
When you don’t have an accurate handle on who’s doing what, it’s easy to spread team members too thin. Effective project management makes it easier to manage people’s capacity and ensure they have reasonable workloads across all of the different projects they’re involved in.
5. Project Management Leads To More Successful Projects
Here’s the biggest benefit of all: Project management means more winning projects.
When you have a rock solid plan and monitor progress carefully, you’re far more likely to deliver a project that satisfies goals, meets requirements, and sticks with your budget and timeline.
Plus, the project management process gives the project team more frequent opportunities to evaluate and course correct when necessary. When they notice something isn’t working out as planned, they can make adjustments before investing even more time and energy.
The 5 Stages Of Project Management
Alright, you get it. Project management is important. But, how does it actually work?
The Project Management Institute (PMI) knows a thing or two about the topic, and they established the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) which is a set of guidelines for project management. PMBOK splits project management into five distinct phases:
As you and your team tackle a project, you move through each of those phases in order. Let’s dig into each of them in a little more detail.
Think your project gets started with a good ol’ fashioned planning session? Not quite. Before sinking teeth into the details of your project, you first need to confirm with your team if it’s worth pursuing.
That’s what happens in the “initiation” stage. You’ll define your project at a high level and identify the business case, benefit, and deliverables. If you determine it’s a worthwhile project for your team, then you’ll get approval (if necessary) and move into the next phase.
Example: You and your team want to record a demonstration video that showcases the core features of your product. You think it will save your customer support team a lot of time, as well as help you convert more customers.
Now’s when the planning magic happens. Effective planning can help you and your team avoid a lot of the main causes for project failure, including poor communication, inaccurate time estimates, and inadequate goals.
The first step in the planning process is to set a goal for your project. Use the SMART goal framework to identify an objective that’s:
Example Goal: Create a demonstration video about our product’s core features to reduce the number of customer support tickets by 12% and increase customer signups by 15%. This video should be launched by March 15, 2021.
Once you have your eye on the prize, you’re ready to address the ins and outs of the project, including the scope, budget, risks, team members, milestones, and more with your team
This can feel daunting, but it’s a whole lot easier if you create something called a work breakdown structure (WBS). This splits your entire project into individual tasks that get displayed in a graphic format.
For example, your video project might be broken down into the following individual tasks:
- Write video script
- Record product walkthrough
- Edit video and add branding
- Publish video on our sales page
With that information at your fingertips, you’re way better equipped to identify the team members who need to be involved as well as a realistic timeline for getting the work accomplished.
Task: Write video script
Task owner: Carrie
Deadline: January 29, 2021
Task: Record product walkthrough
Task owner: Ivan
Deadline: February 12, 2021
Task: Edit video and add branding
Task owner: Peter
Deadline: February 22, 2021
Task: Publish video on sales page
Task owner: Margaret
Deadline: March 5, 2021
This phase is the most straightforward one to understand, but it’s also where all of the elbow grease is being invested. The execution phase is when you and your team are cranking through project tasks and getting the work done.
The monitoring phase happens simultaneously with execution. You don’t want to get so wrapped up in tasks that you forget to zoom out and ensure your project is going according to plan.
Throughout the execution phase, you’ll need to step back, revisit your project plan, and ensure your project is meeting deadlines, sticking with the budget, and satisfying the bigger goals.
If not? Well, your team knows to make some changes to get things back on track.
Example: You check your milestones and realize that the recording of the video is running late. You check in with the task owner (Ivan) to find out when his task will be wrapped up and push the deadline video editing out by a few days to accommodate for the delay.
Your team did it—the video is launched and the project is done. Now what? Do you move onto the next thing?
Not quite yet. How you wrap up a project matters, and that’s what the closure phase is all about. It’s when you’ll wrap up loose ends and officially close out your project. This can include:
- Hosting a retrospective to chat about what went well with the project and what you’d improve if you did it all over again
- Preparing a final project report
- Filing and storing your project documentation so you can reference it in the future
Project kickoffs seem to get all of the love and attention, but skipping this crucial phase is a lot like running a marathon and stopping as soon as you get one toe over the finish line. Your project deserves a glorious sprint all the way through the ribbons.
3 More Tips For Effective Project Management
Now you know the steps to take your project from idea to launch, but there’s way more involved with project management than those five phases. Here are a few more best practices your team should keep top of mind.
1. Familiarize Yourself With Key Terms
Project management is complex, and sometimes it seems like it has a language all its own. You’ll see a number of different terms—like dependencies and critical path—that might make your eyes roll back in your head.
Have no fear. Consider this your beginner glossary of some of the most common project management terms.
- Critical Path: The longest path of dependent project activities. If a delay happens on your critical path, you run the risk of your entire project running behind schedule.
- Dependencies: Elements of a project that are tied together—meaning one can’t happen without the other. There are both task dependencies and resource dependencies.
- Kickoff: The first meeting of the project team to discuss project goals, requirements, and more.
- Life Cycle: The set of stages the project moves through from beginning to end. The five phases discussed above make up the project life cycle.
- Milestone: A specific progress deadline within the project.
- Resources: What your team needs in order to complete the project. Resources can include people, budget, materials, equipment or software, space, and more.
- Scope: The details of exactly what’s included in the project. You’ll hear things referred to as “in scope” or “out of scope.”
- Stakeholder: Anybody who has an interest in or will be impacted by the project.
2. Keep Track Of Dependencies
Your project plan isn’t accurate if you don’t account for dependencies. As mentioned above, there can be both task and resource dependencies within a project.
For example, your product video can’t be edited until it’s recorded. That’s a task dependency. Or maybe the video recording software you need is being used by another team and isn’t available for you until February. That’s a resource dependency.
It’s important that your team identifies and accounts for these dependencies during the project planning process. That will help to set a more realistic timeline and avoid those frantic scrambles to adjust if a dependency sets you back.
3. Centralize Communication
All of the project management jargon and careful planning won’t be much help if your project communication is scattered between tools, endless email threads, instant messages, and random meeting notes.
Project management is a whole lot easier when you use a dedicated project management tool or project management software. Trello is great for this, and there’s even a project management template that’s ready-to-go for you.
This gives your entire project team a single source of truth, and keeps progress, files, resources, and conversations centralized—so everybody on the team can immediately get the information and context they need.
Project Management = Less Stress And Less Mess
Remember the brunch scenario from the beginning? Imagine how much less stressful that preparation would’ve been if you’d applied some project management principles.
You would have confirmed you had the right ingredients, read through your recipes, and created a simple schedule for when you needed to start each dish.
That sounds a little better than spinning around your kitchen like a tornado, doesn’t it? To put it simply, project management keeps you on track so that your team can focus more energy and attention on what matters most: producing a top-notch brunch (uhh…oops, project).